In my experience, the closer you look at things, the worse they are. Take those magnifying mirrors, for example, which seem to exist only to show you that your pores are much larger than you thought possible, and that you should be exfoliating more. When I learned that the “Slow Dancing” exhibit was an IMAX-sized display of dancing in slow motion, I prepared myself for an evening spent watching people who were barely moving. I was ready to feel uncomfortable.
This prediction couldn’t have been further from the truth. The dancers featured in David Michalek’s project manage to maintain — if not amplify — all the grace and beauty associated with dance as viewed at a normal speed. I was amazed at the bravery of the dancers who agreed to this, who would allow complete strangers such an intimate perspective on how their bodies work. Every genre of dance imaginable is shown, from ballet to hip hop to traditional religious dance.
The overall effect of the piece makes these genres seem more similar than they appear when viewed at their usual pace. In slow motion, the jerkiness of hip-hop and the smoothness of ballet become the same, rudimentary muscle movement. Each leg lift, turn, pirouette or sashay is reduced to the specific muscle groups that allow the dancer to make the movement. Quadriceps. Core. Bicep. Triceps. What I took away from it was not so much a sense of wonder at the art of dancing, but rather an understanding of how it is, fundamentally, that people dance.
Michalek’s intention is, I think, somewhat different from what I garnered. In his artist’s statement, he expresses sorrow that dance is an underappreciated art form in our society, citing the fact that only 8 percent of Americans will see a live dance performance before they die. The goal of his creation would then be, I imagine, to take this experience and amplify it: It was as if the enormity of the screens and the almost excruciating slowness of the movements served as a sort of compensation for the number of people who never would have considered dance to be an art form worth paying attention to. In other words, it’s in your face as if to say, “No one has ever paid enough attention to this before, so now people are going to pay more attention than anyone ever would.”
While I do think that the project’s intensity — its act of putting dancers under a microscope — would force those who are indifferent to dance to reconsider its merits, the exhibit cannot be compared to a live dance show. If I had never seen dance performed live before “Slow Dancing,” I wouldn’t think of it so much as an art as I would a form of exercise. The detail in the dancers’ muscles makes it clear that dancing is incredibly difficult. At live dance shows, on the other hand, every movement seems effortless — a different, and more traditional, kind of grace.
The curation of the piece is artistically-informed. The fact that the dancers are only on screen at night makes for a beautiful backdrop. The effect of the illuminated bodies of the dancers against the dark screen and sky, with the moonlight to top it off, is as breathtaking as stargazing. I came away from my viewing experience wishing, more than ever, that I could actually dance.